Wī Pere was born on 7 March 1837 at Tūranga (Gisborne), the son of Poverty Bay trader Thomas Halbert and Rīria Mauaranui, Halbert's fourth wife. Rīria was a woman of considerable mana, predominantly of Te Whānau-a-Kai hapū of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, and also of Rongowhakaata. The child was baptised William Halbert but commonly went by his Māori name, Wiremu Pere (William Bell). He was one of a remarkable group of kin resulting from Thomas Halbert's six marriages to Māori women.
Wī Pere grew up largely under the tutelage of his mother and her kin. By his own account he was used by Rīria in mediating disputes between Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Rongowhakaata. In 1853 he was apparently involved in a confrontation with Te Kooti, who was then leader of a turbulent group of young Rongowhakaata involved in horse-stealing and adulterous exploits to the irritation of leading Māori and settlers alike.
Pere probably had some schooling in the local Anglican mission. Instruction there was mainly in Māori, and he did not attain a strong command of English; this was to handicap him in his later parliamentary career. He was clearly seen by the church as an emerging leader, and was a member of the first standing committee of the diocese of Waiapu. He was also schooled in tribal lore and genealogies by the elders of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki in the whare wānanga called Maraehinahina. This was the basis of his authority in land dealings and Native Land Court proceedings from the 1870s. In 1856, at Waerenga-a-hika, he married Arapera Mātenga Toti. She also had considerable mana in Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki land matters.
When Pai Mārire emissaries came to Poverty Bay in 1865 Wī Pere remained, on the whole, constant to his Anglican allegiance. However, he could not but be affected by the support for Pai Mārire among Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki. Following the battle of Waerenga-a-hika in November 1865 he joined other local leaders in protesting at the sending of Poverty Bay Māori to the Chatham Islands without trial. In 1868 he supported a petition to Parliament opposing the government's demand for the cession of land from Poverty Bay Māori as payment for their involvement with Pai Mārire. He is also believed to have been a signatory to a letter from Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki chiefs criticising the government for demanding the surrender of arms by Te Kooti when he landed at Whareongaonga from the Chathams.
When Te Kooti and his forces occupied Poverty Bay in July 1868, killing officials, settlers and Māori whom they considered pro-government, Wī Pere was, by his own account, regarded by Te Kooti with suspicion for his Anglican and Pākehā associations. He contemplated leaving the district with his wife and three young children, but deemed it expedient to join Te Kooti's people at Pātūtahi and accompany them in their withdrawal. He and his family escaped at Wharekōpae, and he also helped to free others. Subsequently he helped guide the government forces in the pursuit of Te Kooti and Kereopa Te Rau in the Urewera. However, he was to retain sympathy with Te Kooti and kept some contact with him in his refuge in the King Country.
In the 1870s Pere opposed the confiscation of land at Pātūtahi and in Te Muhunga block (on which the Ormond military settlement was built), and invited the Hawke's Bay Repudiation movement leader, Hēnare Matua, to Poverty Bay to help challenge the Poverty Bay Commission set up in 1869 to determine confiscations and pre-1860 settler land claims. He effectively took up the mantle of Repudiation in Poverty Bay, and his efforts resulted in compromises diminishing the more extravagant pre-1860 claims. Through these activities, and his proposals that land be leased or sold on a family or hapū rather than on an individual basis, Pere emerged as the most significant public Māori figure in the district.
The Repudiation movement had brought East Coast Māori into touch with George Grey's parliamentary following, notably W. L. Rees, whom Pere invited to Poverty Bay in 1878. Rees and Pere won sufficient confidence from local Māori to have land blocks vested in themselves as trustees. In 1880 Rees launched the East Coast Native Land and Settlement Company (later renamed the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company), which took over these lands in return for company scrip. The theory was that Māori would vest land in trust, entrepreneurs would invest capital, and the company would bring out settlers.
Some capital was subscribed and a few settlers arrived, but Rees and Pere were unable to give clear titles to the settlers, even though the courts found that the company had the freehold of the blocks and not just a trustee interest. Meanwhile, the land was being charged with mortgages for survey, legal and other expenses. Economic depression and political hostility compounded the problems and the directors were unable to secure legislation to enable them to deal with the land on the authority of the former Māori owners. The company floundered and Pere was reckless in persuading more hapū to vest their land to support it. About a quarter of a million acres was acquired or under negotiation from Māhia Peninsula to the East Cape. A mission to London by Rees and Wī Pere in 1888 to raise capital was torpedoed by a hostile public statement from the Atkinson government. The company was wound up, and the land placed in the trusteeship of Pere and a reluctant James Carroll.
All this stood in contrast to the burgeoning success of Pere's own family estates. He had rescued most of his family's land from the wreckage of the settlement company and put it under his own name. In partnership with a close relative, Peka Kerekere, he became a very successful grazier, running an estimated 18,000 sheep by 1894. The contrast between his blundering with their land in the settlement company and his own land accumulation and rising fortune was not lost on many local Māori, nor on the political community generally. Some sharp questions were asked by Māori members of Parliament. But Pere was by no means entirely responsible for the misfortunes of the company, and his strong stand against the sale of Māori land generally suggests that he neither intended the company scheme for personal advantage only, nor expected the land to be lost to Māori control. He stated later of his own estate that, 'I have leased to the Pakeha sixty thousand acres, and I have reserved for the owners of the land twenty thousand acres.' He kept control away from his younger kin, he claimed, lest they became greedy for a quick return and sold the land, as did Māori in most other districts.
Certainly his concern to help Māori retain land and farm it themselves commanded sufficient support for him to be elected to Parliament for the Eastern Māori seat in 1884, with Ringatū and Mātaatua backing. In Parliament he immediately made his mark. The dominant national issue was the imminent opening of the King Country to the railway and settlement. Pere visited Tāwhiao, the Māori King, with the minister for native affairs, John Bryce. On the subject of land, he spoke strongly in the House against the Native Land Court and individual dealings and in favour of the East Coast model, which involved management of the land through elected block committees and leasing or selling through public tender. He opposed Crown pre-emption because it meant that Māori received low prices for their land.
In 1886 he became a strong supporter of John Ballance's Native Land Administration Act, which had adopted some of the East Coast ideas. Individual dealing by Māori and direct private purchase by settlers were banned. Owners could either sell to the Crown or put the land in the hands of official commissioners to be sold or leased by public tender. But the act was vigorously opposed by another East Coast leader, James Carroll, who represented the fears of many Māori that once the land was in the hands of committees and commissioners it would be beyond their control. The issue dominated the 1887 election for Eastern Māori. In February up to 4,000 Māori and settlers assembled at Pākirikiri, the village of Ōtene Pītau, Wī Pere's elder half-brother, to hear Pere and Carroll debate. The huge audience listened with rapt attention as both speakers went through the act clause by clause. Carroll raised the example of the settlement company which had proved disastrous. The company's unhappy record and Wī Pere's role in it were very much in the public mind. Carroll took the Eastern Māori seat from Pere.
Wī Pere was one of four Waikohu district leaders who invited Te Kooti, now amnestied, to return to his home district. In preparation for the visit the beautiful house Rongopai was built at Waituhi, near Pere's own residence, his mother Rīria and his son Te Moanaroa leading the work. When the prophet's visit became imminent and the house was not complete, Rīria encouraged the young men to paint, rather than carve, the interior decorations. The result is one of the country's artistic treasures. Appropriately, the decorations include a painting of Wī Pere in parliamentary attire, with Rīria perched on his shoulder like a watching owl. When settlers and Māori hostile to the prophet armed to attack Te Kooti, however, the Atkinson government decided on a preventive arrest. Wī Pere, with Major T. W. Porter, rode ahead of the government forces and was with Te Kooti near Ōpōtiki when the arresting party came up.
It was partly continued support from the Ringatū movement which saw Wī Pere returned to Parliament in 1893 (Carroll having moved to the general seat of Waiapu). He had by now joined the Native Land Laws Reform League, launched by Rees, J. C. Firth and other investors with a view to enabling Māori owners of land in multiple title to deal with such land on a corporate basis. More importantly, he had joined the Kotahitanga movement's drive for a Māori parliament, which aimed to achieve Māori equality and limited autonomy. He supported the Native Rights Bill introduced into Parliament by Hōne Heke to give effect to these aspirations, and the call for a boycott of the Native Land Court and an end to selling and leasing. He tried to introduce a bill empowering Māori committees to settle title and lease or mortgage under strict conditions, and he persistently demanded that substantial funds be made available to Māori under the state advances legislation to help them develop their land.
Most of these endeavours failed, but Pere was happy to support Carroll's Urewera District Native Reserve Act 1896, which applied to Tūhoe lands the system of settling titles and managing land through tribal committees instead of the land court. He tried, in vain, to have the power of sale removed from the bill. In 1898, when Richard Seddon introduced a bill to extend the Urewera model nationally, Pere joined the section of Te Kotahitanga that supported this bill and opposed the formal establishment of an autonomous Māori parliament. In 1900 he supported James Carroll's Māori Councils Bill and Māori Lands Administration Bill. He survived a challenge in Eastern Māori from the radical wing of Te Kotahitanga in 1899.
Wī Pere was one of the older school of Māori leaders, blunt and forthright about protecting Māori against Pākehā domination and dogged in the pursuit of his model of land administration. But he lacked command of legal and administrative detail and political subtlety. To the end of his parliamentary career he relied on the House interpreters in debate, and hence did not speak frequently. The times required trained and subtle minds as well as strong personalities, and the Māori electorate recognised this. Pere was defeated by the young Apirana Ngata in 1905.
The Liberal government appointed Wī Pere to the Legislative Council in 1907. There he took pride in being effectively the only Māori member – the other, Mahuta Te Wherowhero, the third Māori King, having absented himself. His contributions to debate were not distinguished, however. He supported Carroll's Native Land Settlement Bill, but did not seriously debate the many controversial clauses or the compromises which the native minister was forced to accept. He urged government expenditure on the East Coast, including a road to Rua Kēnana's settlement at Maungapōhatu, but supported Carroll's Tohunga Suppression Bill of 1907 which was aimed largely at Rua.
He had, meanwhile, become a strong empire loyalist, offering to lead a Māori contingent to the South African war of 1899–1902, supporting naval expenditure and urging military training for all New Zealanders, including women. He forcefully asserted his independence against members who in vain tried to stem his rhetoric, and on one occasion was forced to retract for telling the other East Coast veteran, J. D. Ormond, 'If you neglect them [the Māori people] I will break your nose'. He was unseated from the Legislative Council in 1912 on a technicality.
Pere had maintained his strong involvement with land. In 1896 he had tried to introduce a private member's bill to secure wider powers to rescue the former settlement company lands, and in 1898 helped to draft a local bill for the same purpose. Debt on the estate mounted, until finally, in 1902, Joseph Ward relieved Carroll and Pere of this responsibility by setting up the East Coast Native Trust. Pere had kept control of the Mangatū blocks for his hapū, but here too his administration did not prevent rising debts. In 1917, after his death, the land was put under the East Coast commissioner. Despite his undistinguished record in the administration of other lands, however, Pere made his mark as a large estate holder. The Wī Pere Trust Estate was to become one of the most successful family estates in New Zealand.
Wī Pere died at Gisborne on 9 December 1915, aged 78, survived by Arapera, two children and many grandchildren. Following a tangihanga at Manutūkē, he was buried at Waerenga-a-Hika. The ambivalence which marked Wī Pere's life was reflected in the differing allegiances of his sons: the eldest, Hetekia Te Kani, remained Anglican; a younger son, Te Moanaroa, supported the Ringatū church. Controversy followed his death, too, when the granting of a site in Gisborne for a memorial to him was challenged by petition to the borough council on the ground that he had supported Te Kooti in 1868. The testimony of his son, Te Kani, and James Carroll saw the petition refused and the monument erected.